July 5, 2005


Bookless in America (Charles Kesler, 7/05/05, Real Clear Politics)

Half a century ago, in liberalism’s heyday, American conservatism seemed a contradiction in terms. Men of genuine and liberal learning (was there any other kind?) assured one another that the United States is, was, and ever would be a liberal society. They defined liberalism in an easy-going, open-ended way, connecting the New Deal to the American Revolution by a more-or-less straight line, defined less by philosophy than by temperament: the readiness to change, to experiment, to reinvent—both the government and the self.

In various ways, Louis Hartz, Lionel Trilling, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and others drove this lesson home. For better or worse (most thought for the better), America was the land of liberalism. Conservatism was at best liberalism’s shadow (“the thankless persuasion,” Clinton Rossiter called it) and at worst a European affectation, at once aristocratic and ridiculous. American conservatism was inarticulate—“bookless,” John Kenneth Galbraith once remarked acidulously—because it had nothing to say either about or to America.

With his usual acuity, Galbraith’s pronouncement came in the midst of the century’s greatest outpouring of conservative books. The 1950s and 1960s saw the publication of classic works by (to name a few) Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, Robert Nisbet, Eric Voegelin, Leo Strauss, Harry V. Jaffa, Edward C. Banfield, Whittaker Chambers, and William F. Buckley, Jr. Subsequent decades added luster, with James Buchanan, Thomas Sowell, Charles Murray, James Q. Wilson, Allan Bloom, Walter Berns, Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, and others joining the fray.

So, who’s bookless now? The publisher of The New Republic, no less, admitted recently: “It is liberalism that is now bookless and dying.”

The publishers just sent us Thomas Frank's book, What's the Matter with Kansas?, which from the cover blurbs one might assume was the most important text ever written in the absence of actual revelation. But even it's first chapter is so hilarious that one could almost believe it's meant to be a self-parody. Mr. Frank argues that conservatives have foisted upon average Americans the mistaken impression that liberalism is basically an elitist ideology held only by people who are hostile to the common man and asks: How could they be so stupid as not to listen to people like him who know what's best for them?

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 5, 2005 8:10 AM

By Kesler's definition, conservatism is the new liberalism.

Posted by: David Cohen at July 5, 2005 8:19 AM

Frank asks a few good questions but he does so in a manner that is completely off-putting, placing the problem as being one of 'Kansans' being stupid rather than liberals becoming out-of-touch, lacking in introspection and arrogant. Why people vote for a party that doesn't represent their economic best interests is a good question. However, couldn't the answer be in the failure of other political parties to treat these people as 3-dimensional rather than as cartoonish stick figures as has been their wont for decades? Norman Learism has not helped liberalism or the Democratic Party.

Posted by: bart at July 5, 2005 8:39 AM


No, the answer is they are.

Posted by: oj at July 5, 2005 9:11 AM

Costal liberals have yet to come to grips with the technilogical knowledge revolution which marginalizes their neck of the woods as the end-all, be-all for information. For people like Frank, the idea that folks back in Kansas (or Oklahoma, Louisiana, Nebraska, etc.) are still a bunch of hicks back on the farm fiddling with their three-channel televisions with the vacuum tubes and working with no computer device more complicated than the cash register at the local McDonald's is an act of faith.

The truth is that many of those holding those beliefs are even more disdainful of the rest of the country than Frank, are far more provintial in their view of the nation and have no desire whatsoever to learn anything that might alter their vision. If the rest of the country fails to believe in liberalism, the rest of the country is stupid and there's no need to publish any type of proactive argument, or to try and modify liberalism's own world view, in order to make their ideas more attractive to people outside their own sphere of beliefs.

Posted by: John at July 5, 2005 9:28 AM


You make an excellent point. There were times during the last campaign when I thought that Kerry or Dan Rather or any of the MSM liberals was going to have a nervous breakdown and start sputtering like the alien in 'Plan 9 From Outer Space'..'You stupid, your stupid minds just can't comprehend...you're stupid..'


Who's what?

Posted by: bart at July 5, 2005 9:59 AM

The entire progressive/liberal mindset and the program it produces are grounded in nothing but "reason" and what they believe to be the infallability of science. They are drowning in the data on which they depend to create the value free civilization where abstract equality reigns supreme. The only question is: on what reasonable basis is abstract equality determined to be the highest good? The assumptions of modern liberalism are based on emotion rather than reason. The condescending dismissal of ideas other than their own is the hallmark of modern liberal intellectualism and certainly not the personality trait one would like to see in those controlling the levers of power. It speaks volumes that the left is losing power and their best expalnation is the stupidity of the voters. Delusional.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at July 5, 2005 11:28 AM

1) Why would any of of use the word, "progressive," as a synonem for "liberal" when we all agree that liberals are intellectually stagnant and tactically reactionary?

2) The "trouble with Kansas" from the liberal/Marxist point of view is "false consciousness." Americans are voting their values over what liberal/Marxists think shoud be their immediate economic interests. We vote to keep our guns and save babies instead of placing our votes out for the highest bidder.

Posted by: Lou Gots at July 5, 2005 11:59 AM

bart, I believe oj was addressing your statement "Why people vote for a party that doesn't represent their economic best interests is a good question." I am by no means "rich" though I have every intention and expectation of becoming so before all is said and done. Therefore I do not exactly take well to the notion that "the rich" are my enemy and that I should vote for whatever political party claims to punish the rich at my expense. And I am a typical American.

Posted by: b at July 5, 2005 12:51 PM

Does Frank address Christopher Lasch's directly? I don't see how Frank can not be familiar with Lasch, who wrote in 1987 (in the reply to the reply to the initial linked essay(scroll down)):

Unable to explain the persistence of religion, pro-family attitudes, and an ethic of personal accountability except as an expression of false consciousnessas the product of brainwashing or of an irrational attachment to simple and easy answers after two decades of social upheavalthe Left finds itself without a following. Since it refuses to take popular attitudes seriously, to pander to the existing popular consciousness, in Lillian Rubins curious and revealing phrase, it can hope to reform society only in the face of popular opposition or indifference. The claim that the Left speaks for the common people no longer carries the slightest conviction. But the effort to maintain it without conviction is demoralizing, while the effort to get along without itto abandon the fiction of democracy and to lead the people to the promised land against their own judgment and inclinationsis still a little awkward for radicals brought up in a democratic political tradition. Hence the note of anguish that runs through these communications, so revealing of the Leftist frame of mind.

Faced with the embarrassing gap between Leftist ideology and existing popular consciousnessa gap that began to reveal itself as early as the 1940sthe American Left has had to choose, in effect, between two equally futile and self-defeating strategies: either to wait hopelessly for the revolution, while fulminating against capitalism, or to try to gain its objectives by outflanking public opinion, giving up the hope of creating a popular constituency for social reform, and relying instead on the courts, the mass media, and the administrative bureaucracy.

Posted by: carter at July 5, 2005 2:48 PM

-The Progressive Party Platform of 1912 set the terms and repositioned the points along the political continuum.

- Bolsheviks were 'liberals in a hurry' to left-wing American Democrats until the fall of the USSR. The younger ones have bought the intrinsically Marxist line through a kind of osmosis. They don't even know they're spouting Marx inspired claptrap.

- How old is this Thomas Franks guy? A youthful brain of mush, old enough to know better or a Molly Ivins type: an intellect fossilized in the red amber of utopia?

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at July 5, 2005 2:56 PM


Only in passing and in his own favor does he even mention Lasch.

Posted by: oj at July 5, 2005 9:58 PM

Interesting, thanks.

I get the impression that these days while conservatives know who Lasch is, the Left has forgotten him (except perhaps for the few like Frank who are deliberately ignoring him).

Posted by: carter at July 6, 2005 12:18 AM


The issue is not 'class warfare' or 'soaking the rich.' My question is more basic and less ideological. If you are making within a standard deviation of American median family income, you have a very tough go if you have kids. Medical care, housing and education are outrageous. There's tons of consumer debt out there. One would think there would be greater support for the party that traditionally has been the one to hand out goodies to workingclass people over the last several decades, but that is manifestly not the case. And there is real want out there.

The Democrats should be asking themselves the simple question as to why they cannot win over these voters and if anything their margin of losing those voters is increasing exponentially. The Hispanic immigration isn't helping them either as Hispanics who gravitate into the same economic brackets as their White counterparts are voting more and more like their White counterparts.

Calling working class people who live in small town America 'rubes' or 'trailer park trash' or 'stupid' or 'befuddled' may get the metrosexual trendnoids at Spago or Elaine's all hot and moist, but it doesn't win you any elections.

Posted by: bart at July 6, 2005 8:48 AM


It's incredibly much easier and cheaper as a percentage of income than it was for any prior generation.

Posted by: oj at July 6, 2005 9:09 AM


That's simply false. Health care, housing and education have all increased in cost at a far higher rate than income since the early 1970s. The real crunch isn't felt by those of us at the upper end because for many of us, our incomes have kept up. But for millions of ordinary people, incomes have kept up even less than the overall numbers.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, using 1982-1984=100, medical costs have gone from 34.0 in 1970 to 297.1 in 2003; housing costs have gone from 36.4 to 184.8 in the same period. Education costs have nearly doubled in the last nine years alone(Bureau of Economic Analysis, Department of Commerce). Median family income has remained virtually unchanged, in nominal not real, terms since before Bush took office.

I won't even discuss the impact of the two-income family on the numbers nor its more dire effect on American child-rearing.

Since 1973, Americans are if anything worse off.

Posted by: bart at July 6, 2005 9:25 AM

the widespread entry of women into the workplace (i.e. two income families) has made it tough for single earner families. some things are cheaper, but housing and food are much more expensive now, than in earlier years.

bart: working people don't vote for the democrats because only tax-eaters benefit under their rule. they don't do anything but hurt people who earn their money. that doesn't mean they love the gop (they don't) but they correctly calculate that their situation is best served by the gop...for now.

Posted by: cjm at July 6, 2005 5:40 PM


That's absurd. One hour of work at the dread Wal-Mart earns enough to pay for two pounds of ground beef. How long do you think your grandfather worked to earn same?

Posted by: oj at July 6, 2005 5:44 PM

One of my grandfathers was an associate of Robert LaFollette and the other made about $100/wk as a baker in the Depression, I doubt it took either more than a few minutes to buy ground beef.

The Depression is not the relevant comparison point, the Sixties are.

Posted by: bart at July 6, 2005 7:49 PM

Ask your parents how often they ate beef.

Posted by: oj at July 6, 2005 8:21 PM

how many women had to work to cover the mortgage on the house, in 1900 ? how many now ?

my grandfather grew up in s.f., think you and your wife could afford to buy a house there ? neither can we.

did your grandmother work outside the house ? neither did mine. does your wife work outside the house ? so does mine.

you could buy a steak dinner for $0.25 in my grand father's time. at $500 a year of income, you could buy a dinner like that 40 times a week. how about now ?

Posted by: cjm at July 6, 2005 11:23 PM

Ask your grandfather how often he went out for steak dinners. The obesity crisis is a function of our easy access to cheap and plentiful calories.

Posted by: oj at July 6, 2005 11:27 PM

"In 1971, the average worker had to toil for 174 hoursor more than 4 weeksto pay for a standard 25-inch color television. Today, productivity has helped to slash that by 80 percentthe average worker can purchase a standard 27-inch high-definition television for 4 days, or 32 hours, worth of work."


Posted by: oj at July 6, 2005 11:30 PM

$0.25 / $500 = 0.05%
$16.49* / $36,764** = 0.045%

*Price of an Outback Style Prime Rib at the Outback Steak House on Commerce Center Drive in Colorado Springs, CO

** Average annual wage income 2001-2002 as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics : http://www.bls.gov/cew/state2002.txt

Posted by: joe shropshire at July 6, 2005 11:42 PM

meanwhile, folks weren't making that kind of money:

"When estimates of the national income are divided by the total number of men, women, and children in the United States, the extent of increase from 1900 to date is reduced somewhat. From a level of $241 in 1900 and $324 in 1910, the per capita national income rose to more than $600 in 1919 and 1920. In each of the seven years from 1923 to 1929, inclusive, the per capita income exceeded $600 per year with a peak of $668 recorded in 1929. By 1932 average income had declined to $320, the lowest point in more than two decades. The recovery movement brought about an increase to $540 in 1937. In 1938 the per capita income again fell below the $500 mark."


Posted by: oj at July 7, 2005 12:03 AM

Technology is an exception to the normal rule.

And my father ate all manner of foodstuffs any time he wanted. My mother was raised on a farm, and my grandfather also liked hunting so pretty much anything was available.

I paid for college from summer jobs, and that couldn't be done today.

The obesity crisis is the result of low-cost high carb diets. The standard American food pyramid was fine when we didn't have sedentary jobs. Low carb, high protein diets are far more expensive.

You also neglected to discuss the impact of the two-income family today, as distinguished from the single income one of the sixties.

Posted by: bart at July 7, 2005 9:46 AM

Food is just edible technology.

Posted by: oj at July 7, 2005 9:58 AM